Coneflowers and wild bergamot add color and earth-friendliness to a former lawn.
Patch of prairie outperforms lawn
August 2, 2015
Turf grass blankets 40 million acres in the United States.
It takes 8 billion gallons of water to irrigate all that grass — daily. That much water would fill more than 12,000 Olympic-sized pools.
More than 30 million tons a year of fertilizer keep the emerald carpets lush. Mountains of pesticides ensure that pesky bugs or unwanted weeds don’t despoil the lawns.
Pampered grass requires lots of cutting, and Americans’ mowers suck up 800 million gallons of gas a year. The fleet contributes almost 10 percent of our air pollution.
Lawns are little better than cement in fostering biodiversity. They are biological dead zones.
All of this is mostly for aesthetics. The manicured lawn is perpetuated by peer pressure and lack of imagination. We can do better.
In spring of 2012, we eradicated one-third acre of turf grass at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ headquarters in Columbus (where I work). The site was seeded with a mixture of native prairie plants.
The results, just three years in, are stunning.
This planted prairie is a riot of color. The blossoms of prairie coneflower and oxeye sunflower create a yellow tidal wave. Jots of purple and magenta stipple the prairie, courtesy of purple coneflower and wild bergamot. Prairie grasses add architectural majesty, and there are many other species of plants.
We have spawned a biodiversity factory. The meadow is awash with nature’s ultimate pollinators — bumblebees — and legions of other pollinators: flowerflies, moths, beetles and more. I’ve tallied about 25 species of butterflies thus far.
Monarch butterflies use the prairie as a way station in their long migrations. Some pause to lay eggs on the milkweeds. The fledgling prairie has already contributed monarchs to the world.
Interesting predators lurk among the flowers, capitalizing on the burgeoning populations of lesser insects. Tiny citrine forktail damselflies pluck bugs from the foliage. Massive green darner dragonflies juke about overhead, seizing victims on the wing. Cute jumping spiders pounce on wee prey, and gargoyle-like ambush bugs sit frozen in flowers, awaiting victims.
This food factory hasn’t gone unnoticed by the birds. Song sparrows dart into the prairie to grab caterpillars to feed their nestlings. American goldfinches seemingly burst with elation at the huge seed crop. Their joyful tunes are a constant part of the prairie’s soundscape. An indigo bunting has moved in the past two summers; the electric blue songbird winters in Central America.
The site is a thousand times more interesting than when it was a grass monoculture.
Help the planet, and pulverize some lawn. Replace it with prairie plants or native shrubs and trees. It’ll make the world a better place.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jim